David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 280: Gladys Knight & The Pips (Midnight Train To Georgia)

September 2, 2003

God, I love serendipity.

For a long time, I have tried to decide how I might write about "Midnight Train To Georgia" for this series. The song represented something mysterious, misunderstood by me, as it was played over and over in 1973, a spiritually reinforcing song somewhere between "Crocodile Rock" and "We're An American Band." Not quite being astute enough to realize I should listen and interpret songs beyond the recurring choruses, Top 40 radio led me to assume there was a lot of stuff going on in Georgia, between the midnight trains pulling in and the lights going out (six years later I would wonder why the devil was so intent on going down there).

(Fifty years later, everyone is saying, "you ain't seeing nothing, yet, Georgia.")

Of course, the song isn't about Georgia, really. It is about L.A., a fact I should have picked up from the first lines. California was the subject of a lot more songs than Georgia. The Mamas and The Papas had me dreamin' of it, probably helped by Albert Hammond telling me it never rains there. Factor in, also, that America, of all things, was telling me that everyone they meet is from California.

The L.A. focus of "Midnight Train To Georgia" is easy to miss in the standard structure of pop songs, verse narratives lost in the redundancy of choruses, especially with the Pips repeating every line in the chorus, the extra set of wheels for the engine of Knight's lead vocals. I suspect at 11, I didn't even yet understand how L.A. was star-making territory. All I understood was that some dude was catching a really late train, his girl was going to go with him, all set to "whooo whooo" background vocals that brought the train through my crappy transistor radio into my backyard while I shot basketball.

Here's where the serendipity comes in. First, wanting to capture Cassandra Wilson's "Last Train To Clarksville" cover, and seeing the death of Robbie Roberton fanning my interest in writing about "Between Trains," I needed a third train song for a desired train trilogy. Georgia, via Gladys and her Pips, seemed the perfect place to go.

So, as I do with this song series, I set out on my usual routine of repeatedly listening to it, thinking more and more about interesting angles. As I do a little reading about the song, I learn that the idea came when the writer, Jim Weatherley, had a phone conversation with none other than Farrah Fawcett, who told him she was catching a midnight plane to Houston.

Farrah Fawcett?

Farrah Fawcett, who a few years later would be adorning my walls (I was a teenage boy in 1976, what else would I have had on my wall?), is actually the nexus of one my favorite blogs, capturing the battle after her death between the University of Texas and Ryan O'Neal about ownership of her paintings: "Of Longhorns, Long Hair And Short Bursts Of Fame", a blend of pop culture and higher education that is more bizarre than anything I could dream for this website.

Whooo, Whooo.

But here's where it gets even weirder in my mind. Given my age, my own evolving understanding of love, Fawcett's marriage to Lee Majors--the Bionic Man, people!--in 1973 seemed symbolic of a perfect union. One of the world's most beautiful women married to the Bionic Man. Duh! Who else would she marry? And thus through this fantastic song of love and care for a relationship, the midnight train to Georgia carries a lot of symbolism. Couples who'd rather be together than separate, no matter the cost? The sitting right by each other's sides? The Pips reminding us over and over, "guess who's going to sit right by his side." Textbook lessons in love. This is dangerously close to fairy tale illusions of love.

Of course, Fawcett and Majors broke up about the time I had my first date, and the implicit idea of the woman following the man no matter what, would already start to ring false in my mind, but for that moment, for this moment, allow me this one way ticket back to a simpler view of the world.

Gladys Knight & The Pips. "Midnight Train To Georgia." Imagination. BUDDAH, 1973. Link here.

Day 279: Robbie Robertson "Between Trains"

Day 281: Edwyn Collins "A Girl Like You"

See complete list here.